Steve Sem-Sandberg’s Emperor of Lies was a huge success in his native Sweden when it was published. It won Sweden’s most prestigious literary award, the August Prize. Since then the novel has gone on to become an international bestseller, and has been translated into 25 languages.
Emperor of Lies is a Holocaust novel; it can also be described as historical fiction. It gives the reader a view—that is panoramic and intimate at the same time—of the Jewish ghetto the Nazi established in 1939 in Lodz, a Polish city 70 miles from Warsaw (which the Nazis renamed Litzmannstadt, after Karl Litzmann, a German general who defeated the Russians near the city in the First World War). The ghetto, at one time, had a quarter of a million Jews—both Polish and those deported from other parts of Europe—living in it. It was liquidated in August 1944.
A dominating figure in the novel is Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the eponymous emperor of lies, the ‘eldest of the Jews’ and the ‘Chairman’ of the Lodz ghetto, who presided over it and its inhabitants (with the conniving eye of the Ghetto’s civilian German administrator, Hans Biebow, the real power in the ghetto), in the four years of its existence, in a manner that ensured that he (Rumkowski) would, forever, remain, a controversial figure in the history of the Holocaust.
Rumkowski, it should be noted, is only one of the many real life (and fictional) characters that populate this behemoth of a novel (640 pages). Indeed there are so many that after a while you lose track of them, especially those who make periodic appearances and zoom in and out of the narrative.
Rumkowski might be the central, even pivotal, character, but the novel is—despite its title—not about him; or not only about him. There are large sections of the novel where he is completely absent, as Sem-Sandberg goes into the minutiae of the lives of other characters. What Sem-Sandberg has attempted here, for the best part with great success and panache, is to create for the reader the day-to-day existence—if it could be called that—of its benighted Jewish residents. In his endeavours Sem-Sandberg was no doubt helped by the extensive records (more than 3000 pages) of the life in the Lodz ghetto, created, bizarrely enough, at the behest of Rumkowski, which survived the liquidation of the ghetto (and which, in addition to the accounts of the survivors of the ghetto, made him a villain, a Nazi collaborator, in the eyes of some). It is clear that Sem-Sandberg has painstakingly researched the novel. One of the consequences is that on several occasions the dividing line between facts and fiction gets blurred. Indeed there are instances when the writer makes it clear that he is telling a fact within the fiction (by quoting references). Some of the speeches delivered by Rumkowski—for example, his now infamous speech to the first departing families when the Nazis began liquidating the ghetto in 1943—and Biebow seem to have been quoted directly and are printed in a font that is different from that of the rest of the novel.
There are so many characters in the novel, each with his own riveting story, that it is difficult to do justice to all of them in a single review. As the reader reads the travails of the ghetto’s denizens, their daily struggle for survival, and the unspeakable misery that pervaded what passed for their lives in the Lodz ghetto, the overriding feeling you are left with is of numbness. Sem-Sandberg’s achievement is that with only very occasional tendency towards melodrama, he depicts the full horror of the ghetto life. Indeed at times Emperor of Lies reads less like a novel than an account of the daily lives of Jewish families living in the Lodz ghetto. Some of the stories, like that of Adam Rezpin, are dealt with in some detail, whereas stories of some others, like that of Vera Schulz, the daughter of a Czech Jewish doctor, who is plucked out of Prague and deported to Lodz, are left without a closure. As a result the novel does not have an organized, concise feel to it. Only those readers with interest in and knowledge of the Lodz ghetto would be able to tell whether the wide cast of characters in the novel were true historical figures (who lived through those times) or whether they are the products of the writer’s creativity. Does the distinction matter? The answer is yes, but probably not a great deal. The stories of the several characters in the novel are variations of a single theme: the depredations of the human mind (in this case the Nazis) that make people commit abominable crimes against fellow human beings. If one assumes that the characters in the novel are purely imaginary (with the exception of the obviously historical characters such as Rumkowski and Hans Biebow to name just two; Heinrich Himmler, too, makes a guest appearance), then one wonders whether the theme couldn’t have been conveyed as powerfully with a smaller cast of characters. Their stories, however, are told extremely well, and have a kind of appalling fascination about them. Sem-Sandberg has created some bravura characters, such as the fat Jewish smuggler in the ghetto who is nick-named ‘The Belly’ in reference to his overhanging gut ‘between his flabby arms’, and Princess Helena, the highly eccentric bird-loving sister-in-law of Rumkowski.
Sem-Sandberg goes in and out of the minds of the novel’s myriad characters with great ease. The exception is Rumkowski. Strangely enough he does not come alive for the reader the way many others, even the German administrator, Biebow, do. Sem-Sandberg does not attempt to enter the head of the man who presided over the lives of a quarter of a million Jews in a manner that—you are encouraged to conclude by the end of the novel—was autocratic to say the least. The inner world of Chaim Rumkowski does not lighten up for the reader. The reader is left to draw his own inferences about the character of the man from what he sees of his action through the prism of Sem-Sandberg’s prose.
The Rumkowski that emerges from the novel is a mixture of vanity, grandiosity, ruthlessness, perversion and pathos. Not a great deal of information is provided about his past. He is a failed businessman, and a ruthless and unscrupulous seller of insurance certificates. He is childless. When his first wife dies in 1937 (Rumkowski was 60 by this time) he has a kind of religious conversion, and he opens an orphanage for Jewish children, which, at its peak, houses several hundred children. The novel depicts Rumkowski as a paedophile, who sexually abuses his son whom he adopts in 1943. (The son, along with the rest of Rumkowski’s family, was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and was murdered on arrival.) I do not know whether the paedophilic element introduced in Rumkowski’s character is based on historical evidence or is a product of the author’s imagination. If the latter is the case, one wonders whether it was necessary to make the man a paedophile in addition to his other myriad character defects—for which there is historical evidence is a-plenty. Rumkowski is chosen by the Nazis to run the ghetto (which lasted the longest, although all but 900 of its 230,000 inhabitants—Rumkowski included—were eventually murdered by the Nazis. When the Russians ‘liberated’ the Lodz ghetto there were only 877 inhabitants left in the ghetto.) Rumkowski has his own Jewish police force, headed by the wily and corrupt Dawid Gertler (who, the novel’s Afterward informs the reader, incredibly and unlike Rumkowski, survives the liquidation, and emerges in 1961 to testify against Fusch, the German commander in charge of ghetto). The Jewish police force is scarcely less ruthless than the Germans and, when the deportations begin, goes to great lengths to ferret out the hiding Jewish families so that they could be sent to their deaths. Corruption is rife (as are infectious diseases), and those in the good books of, or are close to, the ‘Chairman’ are higher in the pecking order. The ghetto has its own currency, called ‘Rumki’, and even postage stamps that bear the face of Rumkowski! There is no doubt that Rumkowski is a man fully convinced of his importance in the order of things.
When the novel opens, the ghetto has been ‘functional’ for almost three years. The war is turning against the Germans, although they will not accept it, at least not outwardly, and certainly not to the Jews. As Biebow informs Rumkowski matter-of-factly, Germans have to feed their own first. The dictate has come from Berlin that 20,000 of the ghetto’s Jews will have to be deported to the incinerators of the concentration camps. It is Rumkowski’s job to do that for them. Rumkowski gives a speech to the ghetto denizens and tells them that the only way to ensure that the ghetto exists is to give the Germans what they want. That means the old and the infirm and the children will have to go. In a speech (quoted in the novel verbatim from Rumkowski’s original) that is an odd mixture of pathos and grandiosity (“For 66 years I have lived and not yet granted the happiness of being called Father, and now the authorities demand to me that I sacrifice all my children”) Rumkowski ‘demands’ that the parents volunteer their children younger than 9 years to the German administration. That, he says, is the price the ghetto has to pay if the rest want to survive.
This seems to have been Rumkowski’s position all along. He would appear to have convinced himself that if only the Jews made themselves indispensable to the Germans by their ‘hard work’ and ‘production’, they would be allowed to survive in the Third Reich. Indeed he even imagined—so the novel tells you—that the Nazis would allow an autonomous Jewish state (of which of course he would be the ruler, the satrap of the Nazis) in their Reich. Hence perhaps his acquiescence to the German demands, and his constant mantra that only labour and hard work would save the Jews. Hence also perhaps his insistence that children as young as nine should do hours of back-breaking work to support the Nazi war-machine. That, he probably felt, was the only way to make sure that they did not end up on the transport carriages to incineration camps. In this, as in his many other suppositions, Rumkowski was tragically wrong. While the Lodz ghetto survived longer than other ghettos (and made profits for the Nazis worth millions of deutschmarks), the Nazis liquidated it eventually, and Rumkowski’s life (as also the lives of his family members) ended like hundreds of thousands of Jews: in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. However, since the Nazi civilian administrator Biebow—who fought an increasingly desperate battle to keep Himmler’s SS from taking control of the ghetto—put Rumkowski and his Jewish police in charge of what he euphemistically put as organizing transport, it meant that the once-failed businessman was deciding who amongst the denizens of ghetto would stay back and have hopes of surviving and who would be transported to the death camps. And the novel suggests that he was ruthless about it.
In the Afterward to the novel Sem-Sandberg asserts that he has not taken any ideological position as to whether Rumkowski was a monster, a corrupt administrator who collaborated with the Nazis, or whether he—despite his character faults—did what he did with the genuine belief that that was the best way to ensure the survival of his people. That said the novel drops large hints that Sem-Sandberg belongs to the ‘Rumkowski is a monster’ camp (clue is in the title of the novel). His distinction lies in the fact that at no stage does he forget (and does not let the readers forget) who were the real villains: the Nazis. Rumkowski might preen as much as he wants, presiding over the fates of his fellow Jews, but the Nazis step in whenever they choose and put him in his place, such as the instance when Biebow slaps Rumkowski publically. They were the ultimate monsters who reduced a race to sub-human level.
As one finishes reading this absorbing, if somewhat rambling, account of a Jewish ghetto in Poland and its elderly Jewish administrator, one is left with indescribable feelings of sadness for the human condition. A remarkable novel on a tragic episode in the twentieth century European history, translated in faultless English by Sarah Death.